How the Church and Susan Komen Place Themselves Before Health

Ultimately, Americans want the freedom to make personal health decisions on their own, without the various institutions around us.

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A 20-year-old cancer foundation and a 2,000-year-old church have taken issue with twin cornerstones of women's health in this country. It's time both organizations take a lesson from the way medical professionals put our own personal views aside to deliver care. Health care is not a venue in which to exert your desire to shape the content of people's lives. Health is the default condition we need to make those choices. Life choices must be made freely, all major religions, and all legitimate political ideologies agree.

As a physician I must serve my patients' health only. I cannot attempt to direct my patients' lives. I cannot artificially constrict their choices.

When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would disqualify Planned Parenthood's breast cancer screening programs from future grants, its decision was driven by Komen leaders who couldn't abide family planning. Though the Komen foundation's millions derive from the importance and popularity of its primary mission to end breast cancer, the organization compromised this mission in subservience to a baser mission: fulfilling the ideology of a few, even if it meant loss of health for many.

When the Roman Catholic Church, employer of many non-Catholics, learned that the nation's new health care law meant its hospitals, universities, and other civic institutions must provide complete health insurance coverage, outrage spewed forth, our second national conflagration over health and values in as many weeks. Mind you, many otherwise solid American Catholics use contraception despite what their church says on the issue. Still, the thought that Catholic hospitals and universities would end up facilitating family planning in their health plans seems a step too far for Catholic leaders and the political demagogues playing to them.

Really, who do they think they are?

As a physician I must serve my patients' health only; I cannot attempt to direct my patients' lives; I cannot artificially constrict their choices. Every day we treat similar patients different ways, taking our cues from diverse values. In my case, I work in brain injury medicine. Some families I counsel will choose to let a severely brain injured child or parent pass away from a pneumonia that could be easily treated. I obey, I facilitate. Other families will desire every possible treatment, elevating life regardless of current physical condition. I obey, I facilitate. I respect both choices.

Every day folks in similar medical circumstances receive similar counseling from their doctors, yet end up making different choices. It is not their employer's place to intervene. It is not a non-profit foundation's right to intervene.

Organizations that wish to interject themselves into the private health decisions of Americans, take note. Komen backed off. Catholics are taking a compromise. Ultimately, Americans want the freedom for themselves alone, not for the various institutions that have grown up around us, all trying to push us their own way.

Health foundation board members and legions of faithful alike can believe whatever they wish to be true. They may freely conduct their own lives as they choose. But nobody has the freedom to tell my patient what to do about her condition, her body, her life. Not her doctor, not a non-profit foundation, and not somebody else's church.

Image: Reuters.

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Ford Vox, MD, is a physician, based in Atlanta, who specializes in caring for people with complex brain injuries. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.

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